S.J. Bolton is very good at figuring out how to make people want to read about things that horrify and even disgust them. Her novels’ often-inviting British Isle locales turn out to be infested with creepy crawlies: snakes slithering circles around an idyllic village in Dorset, a rash of psychotic nightmares terrorizing undergraduates at Cambridge, bloody pagan sacrifices disturbing the peace of the Shetland Islands. A Mary Higgins Clark Award winner for “Awakening” (the serpentine suspense novel) and a nominee for a hearse-load of other prestigious awards, Bolton usually knows when to squeeze a reader’s pressure points and when to ease off. Her latest novel, “Lost,” however, uncharacteristically begins with a gag-inducing conversation likely to cause some readers to quit the book and, instead, click on a British mystery perennial, something soothing like “Midsomer Murders.”
Truth be told, I, too, could do without that prologue, in which an unidentified voice waxes all-too-specific about the experience of cutting “into young flesh.” That the voice is revealed to belong to Bolton’s recurring heroine Detective Constable Lacey Flint — and that the young flesh she’s cutting is her own — doesn’t much soften the revulsion, especially given that in the following chapter we learn that Londoners are being terrorized by a knife-wielding maniac targeting young boys. “Lost” is a brooding thriller, but be forewarned: It’s a consistently grislier performance than most of Bolton’s other books.
The story gets underway when the bodies of two boys, twins, are found near Tower Bridge, positioned, as if asleep, on the banks of the Thames. They are not the serial killer’s first victims. Over the past two months, two other pre-teen boys have been dumped near the Thames: All the victims’ bodies have been drained of blood. The police are baffled; moreover, their investigations are being hampered by the increasing interference of publicity-seeking “experts” who pop up on chat shows, throwing around theories about “Clinical Vampirism” and “Renfield’s Syndrome” (named for Count Dracula’s unlucky assistant). Also trying to suss out the identity of the fiend is a smart and very lonely 11-year-old boy named Barney, who lives in the same vicinity as some of the victims. Barney’s mum has been gone for years; his closemouthed dad, a university lecturer who works suspiciously long hours, never mentions her. Frequently left on his own at night in his rickety old house, the tech-savvy Barney has been pursuing two secret projects. The first is his quest to find his missing mum; the second is his project to map out the riverside locales where the victims’ bodies turn up, to see whether a pattern emerges.
As part of his investigation, Barney religiously follows the postings on a Facebook page devoted to the murders. Logging in after the twins’ bodies are found, he notices a curious coincidence regarding the victims’ disappearances and the subsequent discoveries of their bodies: “He blinked, double-checked. Blimey, had nobody spotted that? It all happened on Tuesdays and Thursdays.” A few seconds after Barney posts his discovery online, he’s answered by a creepy character who often contributes odd comments to the Web site under the name “Peter Sweep”: “I was wondering when someone would spot that. Oh, the cleverness of you. Are you busy next Tuesday?” Barney tries to tell himself that Facebook is safe and anonymous, but neither he nor the reader is reassured.
Barney’s intrepid, vulnerable character is a big part of the lure of “Lost”; so, too, is Bolton’s ingenious plot, which contains more red herrings than your average Agatha Christie fishpond. More confounding than captivating, however, is a subplot involving Detective Flint (who happens to be Barney’s next-door neighbor). Flint is on leave, recovering from a harrowing undercover assignment at Cambridge, which was chronicled in Bolton’s fifth novel, “Dead Scared.” Flint’s trauma is frequently alluded to, but in such a cryptic manner that even those of us who have read this series need more of a background refresher.
“Lost” gathers force as it rushes to its genuinely surprising climax. While it isn’t my favorite Bolton novel (I’d recommend “Awakening,” “Dead Scared” or “Sacrifice”), there’s enough psychological suspense involved to make even squeamish readers forget the gore, for a time.
Corrigan, the book critic for the NPR show “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
By S. J. Bolton
Minotaur. 391 pp. $25.99